Sherlocking Task Anxiety

By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC Another in a series of articles from my upcoming book, TaskMaster™ – see article list below

Task Anxiety 101 – part 2

Watson, we need to review

The three most recent segments introduced a unique connection between bribery and intentionality, linking it to reward and acknowledgment. I introduced the connection between inner three-year-olds and the cookie concept, a real-world application of the importance of reward and acknowledgment to ongoing accomplishment.

IF you’ve been playing along . . .

In the TaskMaster™ Series Introduction and in Task Anxiety Awareness, you made some lists.

One is a List of Ten — activities you find yourself doing INSTEAD whenever you attempt to complete a task, or in response to an attempt to initiate a task.

  • This is a list of any ten of the things that YOU do that leaves you chronically behind and befuddled.
  • Many of you had self-identified with that not-very-helpful “chronic procrastinator” label as a result.
  • I encouraged you to reframe those tasks as “avoidance” activities: avoiding task anxiety.

You also have a List of Five Feelings.

I asked you to think of a specific example in your life where you tried to listen to “logical” advice from those who did not take the time to understand the parameters of your problem before stepping in to suggest their “simple solutions.”

  • I asked you to recall how you felt when you attempted to take that “logical” advice (or even thought about taking it), especially when accompanied by a failure to reach a goal or complete a task.
  • I suggested you write down at least five descriptive feeling words, then walked you through four paired-awareness exercises, shuffling the paired words around a bit to see if any new insights bubbled up from your unconscious.

Now, dear Watson, let’s connect some dots!

The Cause and Effect of Growth and Change

It is important to understand a fundamental, psychological truth about all human beings, ADD/EFD or not: we are conflicted about growth and change. At bottom, most of us crave safety as strongly as we crave adventure, although not in equal measure at all times and about all things.

The process of developmental transformation is one we must all undergo. It consists of making peace with our conflicts, at least to the extent that we are able to change and grow — to continue to evolve into the human beings we were uniquely created to become.

Unconsciously, we yearn to “fulfill our potential” as if potential were a single destination, instead of a moving target, forever out of reach.

When we live under the roofs of our first caretakers we yearn for autonomy – to do life in our own unique manner and in our own sweet time.

We are also, on some level, afraid of displeasing our caretakers for not doing life their way.

  • We are eager to “grow up,” to prove ourselves competent souls who don’t need help from anyone, even as we hope that we can count on our caretakers to step in and pick up the pieces if we make a mess of things.
  • For those with EFD/ADD/ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders, our caretakers occasionally or frequently find it incumbent upon them to “step in and pick up the pieces” more often than anyone would like.

On a level just below conscious awareness, we all buy into the mythology that there is a “right” way to do life that will, if we do it right, lay all of life’s goodies at our feet in a nice, neat row. And if we do it REALLY right, getting the goodies will require no input or assistance from those other humans who, after all, we’re not entirely sure we can count on to come through for us.

  • If we are missing a few of those goodies – and that is a list that grows logarithmically with human evolution as well as our own – of course, we’re fearful that we didn’t do it RIGHT.
  • We are also surrounded by others who are desperate to prove what they do is “right,” who are more than willing to tell us what we did wrong.
  • Feeling like we might have “blown it” is highly stressful for anyone, and especially so for those of us who seem to step into holes more often than our contemporaries.
  • And THAT causes anxiety!

The Wikipedia entry on Anxiety reminds us that,

“Anxiety is considered to be a normal reaction to a stressor. It may help an individual to deal with a demanding situation by prompting them to cope with it.

[Only when] anxiety becomes excessive, [does it] fall under the classification of an anxiety disorder.

Make sure you don’t confuse the two.

Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder

Handling task anxiety will certainly have a positive effect on anxiety disorder. Please understand, however, that the difference between feeling “anxiety” (of any sort) and suffering from the debilitating effects of anxiety disorder is as great as the difference between a transitory depressed mood and major depressive disorder.

NEITHER disorder is “all in your head” – at least not in the fashion meant by those who sling those words dismissively. Both can be helped tremendously by professionals trained to work with them, often with at least a short course of medication along with cognitive restructuring.  (There are lots of studies demonstrating that both in tandem are, perhaps, the most highly effective combination — and there is no shame in needing medication longer term, by the way.)

PLEASE don’t let anything or anybody dissuade you from seeking help — or from taking appropriately prescribed medication as a result of a diagnosis of any disorder.

THEY don’t get it, and YOU don’t have to suffer because they don’t — so if you suspect your “task anxiety” is more extreme than what you are reading about in this series, allow yourself to go check it out, and ask for help.

YOUR LIFE is waiting for you to feel better, so do it soon, ok?

Poor Organization & Task Completion

Those of us with Executive Functioning Disorders often have difficulty “putting it all together.”

Our “cognitive deck of cards” gets shuffled in the process of recording into short term memory and consolidating for long-term storage. That makes it harder to figure out which cards to pull when it comes time to play the game — making it difficult to respond appropriately, or to correctly evaluate consequences and outcomes.

As a result, projects tend to be abandoned unfinished in our dissatisfaction with our lack of ability to play at a level that makes the game interesting rather than an exercise in frustration.

Naming the Game

“Naming the Game” is a concept and a way of working that I came up with twenty years ago. With the help of many of my graduates, various parts of the idea have worked their way into the ADD Coaching culture.

Here’s what’s important about it for this article:  

  • How you name the game determines the rules.
  • The rules determine your level of comfort with your level of activity.

In typical black and white fashion we tend to lump long range tasks, daily tasks, weekly tasks & someday tasks all together as we levy an indictment against ourselves:  I can never seem to get anything done!

  1. First, we need to begin by distinguishing all those collapsed tasks.
  2. Next we need to spend time looking at the reality of what we DO accomplish.
  3. Then, we need to develop some systems that will enable us to accomplish the things we choose to do.

We also need to take a look at how we conceptualize tasks that may be making them harder to do. FINALLY, we’ll rename the game in some manner that’s something we can actually DO.

Stop Prioritizing, Start Sequencing

This is a different kind of ranking than most of us are used to — which is a darn good thing because many of us despise the process of prioritization. So we avoid it. Since we’re not doing it anyway, let’s just dump the whole idea in the garbage.

When most of us hear the word “prioritize” we’re already one foot over the Boggle line.

It’s ALL “important!” we cry. Attempting to split importance hairs leads us further INTO the woods, where it’s easy to remain, hopelessly lost for hours.

Instead of “prioritizing” or ranking by “import,” we are going to sequence, which gives us a whole lot more wiggle room.

Step by Step

Building a house, does it really matter whether you install the front door or the back door first? On the other hand, it’s pretty much impossible to install ANY doors until the walls are built.  They aren’t more important, they are merely necessary first. That, as a broad overview, is sequencing: getting a handle on a logical progression of tasks so that we can plan how we move through them.

But before we can do even THAT, we need to make some sense of the lay of the land.  So haul out that notebook, we need to make a few more lists.

List Accomplishments — things we ARE getting done.

You are probably not sitting around eating bonbons, so what HAVE you been doing with your time? Be sure to list only the completion portion of those items.

If your goal is to install your kitchen cabinets, which part of the project is behind you?  Even if you haven’t picked up the first power tool, have you located the appropriate power tools?  Do you have a list of measurements so that you can decide on the arrangement of the cabinets?

Maybe ALL you can point to on that project is research.  Good for you!  That counts, but YOU have to count it.

  • For most of us, that will mean splitting tasks into manageable subtasks and giving ourselves points for every tiny thing we accomplish: exchanging black and white for gray.
  • It stops being fun to continue to play a game the very second we realize there is no way for us to win it. Our brain goes, “N-E-X-T! ” Set it up so that you get to WIN.
  • Life isn’t high school.  There’s no such thing as “partial credit.” EVERY thing you get done COUNTS!

List Incompletions — things we’re not getting done.

Paint this list in broad strokes.  This is a tracking exercise, not documentation for your personal wall of shame.  You don’t have to explain, defend, grovel or promise to do a darned thing on it– track it like a weather report.

What we are doing instead, by category:

  • Human being tasks
  • Procrastination tasks
  • Interruption tasks
  • Distraction tasks

Divide each into categories

  • Long range
  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Someday

If You’ve Played Along

Read back through your lists. If you’re like most of my clients, your level of task anxiety is now much lower. What once seemed impossible “suddenly” seems like something you can step yourself through. GREAT!

While you are waiting for the next installment of TaskMaster™, DO THAT. Take a few of those steps. Cross out a couple of items and subdivide some of the bigger chunks on your “not getting done” list. Take a few more steps. Refine your lists every time you get stuck.

Take advantage of the relief that comes from lowering Task Anxiety to take a few more steps. Don’t forget to cross them out, and whatever you do, don’t forget about the cookie!

The next few articles will introduce ten task-training tips that will help you get things DONE, and the importance of taking your functional temperature – so don’t miss it.

IN ANY CASE, stay tuned. There’s a lot to know, and a lot more to come.

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the TaskMaster™ Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!) 

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

12 Responses to Sherlocking Task Anxiety

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  9. Dan says:

    I’m finding your series really helpful. Thank you! One thing I’m a little confused about though is the categories for the list of incompletions– I’m not sure how to distinguish Procrastination tasks from Distraction tasks?


    • You’re welcome – and thanks for your feedback.

      In my way of working with so-called procrastination,”D-tasks” are those that take you away from what you need to be doing – like binge-watching watching a TV series, or “suddenly” deciding that what you need to do is not as “important” as something else on your list (that seems like it must be done NOW).

      In other words, you reduce task anxiety by running away from that task, aware or unaware consciously. Once you identify them, when you find yourself drawn to them, ask “What task am I avoiding,” to bring it to consciousness.

      “P-tasks” are things you tend do as *part* of the task (in prep, if you will, albeit unconscious), which look like you are procrastinating when you are actually calming task anxiety on the way to getting it done.

      i.e., I shuffle papers for about 30 minutes before I dive into financial tasks. As long as I don’t beat myself up about it (and nobody else decides to vote on my process), I “naturally” start sorting through one of the piles after 20-30 minutes of making paper piles, moving INTO my planned task.

      I worked with a client who always “found herself vacuuming” when she needed to work on her dissertation.

      Attempting to follow standard “vanilla” advice had her in tears. Once she stopped agonizing about it and began to schedule correspondingly longer chunks of time, her floors were immaculate and she was finally on-track with her dissertation schedule.

      Hope this helps. Your question helped ME identify what needed to be expanded in a future article (and another chapter in the eventual book). So thanks!


  10. Hi Madelyn – interesting article with many helpful tips! Thanks so much for the mention – delighted to be included:)



    • Hi Louise, my pleasure. I am surprised you found my ping before I had a chance to leave a comment. You’re quick! This was my last task before I put myself to bed before dawn (here in East Coast USA). I’ll be back to post a comment after a nap – your site impressed me – as did the article, or I wouldn’t have linked.

      Thanks for stopping by.


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